MRIs, CAT scans, PET scans, radiation, chemotherapy. For patients and their loved ones, learning the jargon of diagnosis and treatment is just one of many challenges posed by illness. St. Louis-born visual artist Amy Reidel remembers these struggles all too well. Within three years, some of the most important women in Reidel's life—her mother and two aunts—were diagnosed with cancer. She lost her grandmother around the same time. Arriving one right after the other, these blows hit Reidel hard, both emotionally and artistically. Channeling all of her energy into caregiving, Reidel was unable to produce new work for over a year.
Since her days as an MFA student, Reidel has experimented with meteorological imagery, like Doppler radar, in her work. Using these graphics became a “trick” for Reidel, a way for her to plumb serious emotions like heartbreak, depression, and anxiety. Reidel finds beauty, rather than merely danger, in Doppler radar forecasts of tornadoes and looming storm systems. When she was finally ready to work again after taking care of her family, she began to revisit the various imaging tests that they had undergone throughout their treatments. As she researched color MRIs and PET scans, she came to recognize that her previous work shared a visual language with these diagnostic images. Reidel remembers being “completely fascinated,” then “soothed” by the familiarity of their shapes. Though, like weather radar, these scans signal threat, they also possess an unexpected and inscrutable allure.
"Radar home, 11.8.13" showcases the work that Reidel made in response to her family's traumas. Unfolding like a timeline across a suite of low-ceilinged rooms on the Sheldon's first floor, "Radar home" makes productive use of a challenging space. An elongated white wall on the left-hand side features multiple clusters of composite media works. Saturated with neon colors and bedecked with glitter and tinsel, these works practically shout at incoming visitors. According to Reidel, the effect is intentional. “I wanted it to beat people over with sensory stuff,” she says. “I wanted it to be like the audience is getting blasted with this information.” From the start, the presence of illness is unmistakable. One of the first pieces that visitors will encounter is Gate (Alternate Version), which depicts the artist’s dying grandmother lying on a hospital bed while another woman hovers over her. Reidel superimposes an electric pink heart over the roughly cut canvas. In the mixed media collage Grandma Beach Spirit (with Audrey Wig), a ghostly female figure floats above the sand and surf below, rising toward a cornflower blue sky. The final pendant of this informal triptych is Untitled (Aftermath). Reidel transforms the iconic crime scene chalk outline into a riotously colorful, body-shaped collage made up of weather radar and potentially cancerous masses. In this grouping, she moves viewers from the realm of the ailing body to that of the spirit, and ultimately somewhere in between.
No doubt buoyed by Reidel’s playful use of color and kitschy materials, the works exhibited in "Radar home" reveal a surprising amount of humor and hope despite their raw emotion. In Puking Roses, a row of artificial red roses “vomits” gold tinsel. As it evokes the physical toll of cancer treatment, the work also wittily suggests a Hawaiian luau-themed party gone awry. This is a fête interrupted, indeed infected. Undoubtedly one of the show’s standout pieces, Audrey Wig nods at the wigs worn by cancer patients after losing their hair. For over two years, Reidel asked family and friends living throughout the country to braid and send her friendship bracelets. To weave the wig, Reidel then combined these bracelets with ribbons whose colors signify specific diseases (red for heart disease, pink for breast cancer, and so on). Audrey Wig celebrates the networks of support—visible and invisible, at home and afar—that become so vital during health crises.
In "Radar home," Reidel mines an incredibly difficult period in her family’s history. The show is more than a deeply personal project, however. With its themes of love, family, and fear of dying, the exhibition will resonate with anyone who has ever experienced loss. That is, with everyone.
"Radar home, 11.8.13" is on view until January 14 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington. Gallery hours are noon–8 p.m. Tuesday, noon–5 p.m. Wednesday–Friday, and 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Saturdays. The galleries are also open one hour prior to performances, and during intermission. For more information, call 314-533-9900 or go to thesheldon.org.